Fashion—frivolous by-line for the self-indulgent or, a power industry? For Sri Lanka, definitely the latter. In the wake of the first discussions to form a national strategy for Sri Lanka’s creative economy, fashion has come to have a deeper significance for the island. This is the evolved, creatively driven future of its most potent export industry—apparel manufacturing. With apparel’s mature infrastructures, widespread channels, fantastic technologies, and investments to develop a creative workforce, Sri Lanka’s fashion sector is entering the arena with a winning formula already in place. In fact, the Export Development Board Sri Lanka proposed directing a special focus towards fashion in the first creative industries’ strategy, as a sector ready to roll out. With the government having invested 1.3 billion LKR into research and development for the Sri Lankan apparel industry in 2017, on the heels of an 826 million LKR investment in 2016, (Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute), and new possibilities as a creative sector of national interest, the business of fashion seems to hold incredible potential in Sri Lanka.
Respected around the world for pioneering sustainable manufacturing practices in South Asia, Lankan apparel makers form an industrial superpower nearing US $ 5 billion value, bringing in 45 per cent of export earnings, and presenting 5 per cent of employment opportunities available in the country. But, it’s not only the manufacturing industrial power that makes Lankan fashion so ready to take the lead in an emerging creative economy. The interest and commitment they have displayed towards harnessing innovative thinking and creative cultures at work is the key reason why Lankan fashion is well-primed. Most major manufacturers in the island have been investing in developing creative teams, design departments, tech-fashion integrators, and innovation labs for well over a decade. Brandix’s Fortude and ‘Disrupt Unlimited’, Hirdaramani’s H. One and Twinery—Innovation by MAS are few examples.
Taking a closer look at Sri Lankan apparel industry’s interest in nurturing creativity, we invited Thishan Rambukwela, Head of Design at MAS Active to share his ideas. Thishan mentioned that Sri Lankan apparel industry is interested in design and creative innovation because it’s among what sets the clear difference between Sri Lanka’s value proposition and cheap needle destinations that compete with price. “We need to do much more than just manufacturing—most apparel companies know this. Design and the ability to innovate are a part of Sri Lanka’s unique offering. In fact, now we have clients who are keen to source design and ideas from us. They collaborate with us to get the product right,” Rambukwela said.
He further noted that this openness to collaborate has resulted in a much more fluid production process where manufacturing and design intertwine, where one inspires the other in many ways, and designers, material engineers, and textile technologists work together to create a high-value product. “There is no more clear-cut separation between the manufacturing process and design, it’s one and the same. This has also influenced the Sri Lankan apparel to move from a manufacturing industry to a creative one based on ideas and intellectual property,” he noted.
Thishan reflected on how this natural evolution was expedited by the Lankan apparel makers’ unified decision to not compete at low price levels, even during the toughest economic turmoil and the former years without the GSP+ advantage. He noted that although this has earned Sri Lanka a reputation of being a pricier choice, it has also contributed to a well-deserved esteem as a high-quality manufacturing destination with the added advantages of creative thinking and capacity to innovate. “We are known as an expensive destination, but we often find that it is more and more welcomed as long as we can offer creativity, design, and ideas that can reinvent fashion in some way or the other,” Thishan explained that MAS’ own group focussing on design thinking, innovation, and using creativity for radically new inventions—Twinery-Innovation, is responsible for advanced mergers between tech and wearables such as the Firefly© glow-in-the-dark material.
As Sri Lanka’s plans to lock in a national policy for its creative economy take shape, its powerful apparel industry seems to be perfectly positioned to reap in the benefits. What it will offer the world, is a design and innovation-driven fashion manufacturing destination with strong sustainable practices. For the South Asian region, it becomes a new kind of destination within the region, where fashion brands, businesses, and even designers can work with an industry that understands trends, aesthetics, creative thinking, innovation and the value of intellectual property. How this unusual fashion destination will evolve with a focused creative industries’ national policy will be interesting to observe in the next few years.